Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Folly

And here we have the tailor and inventor Franz Reichelt, on February 4, 1912, the day he leapt off the Eiffel Tower. Just looking at him, in his ridiculous homemade parachute, we already know how this will turn out; we don't have to see the newsreel footage, shot on that cold morning, which documents his fatal descent. (For the curious, the whole sorry incident is outlined at Wikipedia, and more photos are available at La piedra de Sísifo, with a brief text in Spanish.)

It's impossible not to wonder about Reichelt's state of mind that day. Did he not at least half-intuit, as he prepared to step off the tower, that he was signing his own death-warrant? Had he simply gone too far to pull back without losing face? How long did it take him, as he began to fall, to realize his miscalculation? Did his limbs desperately try to regain the safety of the tower, when it was already too late?

But we shouldn't judge him too harshly. Two years later, the great statesmen of Europe, counseled by the finest and best-informed diplomatic, political, and military minds of the day and bolstered by countless reports, cables, secret agents, alliances, and maneuverings, would collectively plunge their countries and their peoples into the abyss of the Great War. In the unimaginable carnage that ensued, millions would die, empires would fall, and a cascade of destruction, hatred, and oppression would be set in motion that would take decades to exhaust itself. How long did it take those statesmen (and they were all men, of course) to understand the consequences of their actions? Reichelt, icon of inanity that he has come to be, harmed only himself.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Next to Me

The Yellow Hope is the stage name of the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and applied mathematician Arnold D. Kim, who when not recording and performing is deputy director of the UC Merced Center for Computational Biology (not your typical day job, but hey, you do what you gotta do). He has put out two CDs, Even the Beautiful Get Lonely (Sometimes), from which this track is taken, and the recently released Fifty Shades of Yellow, which features a duet with Syd Straw, no less.

A fine guitarist with an unassuming but appealing singing voice, Kim is content not to try to push his songs too hard. His subject matter pretty much hews to the usual range of romantic infatuation and disappointment, and at his best, as in this quietly affecting little song, he's quite good. The place names mentioned in the lyrics trace a stroll through the streets of Madrid, described in more detail (and with pictures and a map) on the Yellow Hope Project blog.

The two Yellow Hope Project CDs are available from CD Baby.

Update: Kim has now posted a video of the song.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dear Mother (Primo Levi)

I haven't been able to determine whether "Cara Mamma," the Primo Levi story from which the following excerpts are taken, has been translated into English. In any case, I came across it in a French translation, on a website with a Japanese-English name, and it's written in the form of a letter home from an ancient Roman soldier stationed in Britain, so we're well into international waters here.

Dear Mother,

I beg your pardon if I haven't written you after receiving the letter that you sent me last March, and which arrived just as the spring was reaching its end. In this country, spring isn't like it is back home; here, the seasons have no frontiers, it rains winter and summer, and the sun, when it shows itself from behind the clouds, is as feeble in summer as it is in winter — but it rarely shows itself.

If I've been slow to respond, it's because the public scribe to whom I've addressed myself in the past has died. After so many years and so many letters that he wrote for me, we had become friends and I didn't have to explain to him each time who I was and who you were, to tell him where you live, where our village was and what it was like, and everything that one needs to know so that a letter could speak as a messenger might speak.

The public scribe who transcribes my words today arrived a little while ago. He's a wise and educated man, but he's not Latin, nor even a Briton, and he still doesn't know much about the way they live here, so it's I who am helping him more than he helps me. He's not Latin, as I said, he comes from the country of Kent, which is to say from the south, but he has always worked in public service, and he speaks and writes Latin better than I do, now that I'm beginning to forget it. He's also a good magician, who knows how to make it rain, although that's a task that I am equally able to perform, since it rains almost every day. [...]

Imagine that everything here is different from the way it is in Italy: the vegetation, the sheep, the sea, the houses, the clothing, the fish, the shoes; so much so that one is naturally drawn to call these things not by their Latin names but but the names they use here. Don't laugh if I talk of shoes; in a country of rain and mud, shoes are more important than bread, to the extent that here in Vindolanda one finds more tanners and cobblers than soldiers. For three quarters of the year we wear hobnail boots that weigh two pounds each — everyone, even women and children. [...]

Dear Mother, write me and tell me the news from home; the postal service is quite good, your letters reach me in less than sixty days, and even your package arrived in just over sixty days. Here, one is in wool country, but the wool here isn't as soft and proper as the kind you spin. I thank you with all my filial affection; every time I put on my shoes my thoughts will be of you.

The above translation, which is now two removes from what Levi wrote, is mine. The "original" text (with the same ellipses) can be found at A Nice Slice of Tororu Shiru, where it is accompanied by a brief note and bibliographic details.

Update (2015): An authorized translation of this story will presumably be included in the three-volume set of The Complete Works of Primo Levi to be published by Liveright later this year.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Waking Hour

I had never heard of David Francey until a few weeks ago, but already I'm a fan.
I wake to the radio morning news
Just as the day is dawning
And I watch from the window while a passing cloud
Dulls the hopeful morning
And I wonder will the girl I love
Come back with the morning
But the omen crow at the waking hour
Has given me fair warning

And the heart that's breaking
Never makes a sound
Born in Scotland in 1954, Francey has lived in Canada since he was twelve. He worked in the construction business for years and didn't cut his first record until he was well into his forties (so score one for the old guys). Since then he has released a CD every year or two and has emerged as one of Canada's most respected songwriters. The Skating Rink is the one I'm currently listening to, but this title song from The Waking Hour (which is available in the US from from Red House Records) is hard to get away from too.

Reading Martin du Gard (VIII): Flight

As the seventh and longest of the eight parts of The Thibaults draws to a close, armies have been mobilized, fighting has broken out across Europe, and Jacques Thibault and Jenny de Fontanin have become lovers. Jean Jaurès, the one Socialist leader who seemed most likely to resist the march to war, has been assassinated before their very eyes; to Jacques's disgust, Jaurès's former comrades quickly fall in step with the patriotic march to war. Because Jacques holds forged Swiss papers, he plans to take Jenny to Switzerland and escape service in the army. In no case is he willing to fight or to kill his fellow man; the divergence between his views and those of his older brother Antoine, in regard to the civic obligation to obey the country's call to arms, is absolute. (Though Martin du Gard was a pacifist, he characteristically gives Antoine the most persuasive lines.) At the last moment, Jenny has a terrible row with her mother and decides to remain behind in Paris, temporarily, to patch things up. Jacques leaves for Switzerland; the couple will never see each other again. Despite his genuine love for Jenny, the truth is that he is relieved. He has set himself a mission, to which Jenny would only be an obstacle.

The mission, such as it is, is utterly insane: with a comrade, a pilot named Meynestrel, he concocts a plan to drop hundreds of thousands of leaflets along the battlefront, leaflets calling on soldiers on both sides to lay down their arms and rise up against the politicians and capitalists who have sent them to war. Does he really believe that the soldiers will heed the call, or does he simply welcome the chance to sacrifice his own life in a doomed effort that he knows is likely to prove fatal? The chapters describing the preparations for the flight have an adventurous, even lyrical tone, but it all ends too soon, and the final pages of L'éte 1914 are grueling to read. The plane malfunctions and crashes, Meynestrel is killed, the leaflets are consumed in flames, and Jacques, horribly injured, is pulled from the wrecked plane by French soldiers. Unable to speak, fitfully conscious, he is mistaken for a spy and bound to a stretcher. (In what may be an echo of the Passion, he is taunted and pelted with gravel.) As the French army retreats in the face of a German offensive he is carried along with them; when the retreat degenerates into a disordered rout one of the stretcher-bearers, terrified of his own act, administers a hurried coup de grâce with his pistol.

The novel will resume with a book-length Epilogue set four years later. But after some 1,750 pages, Martin du Gard has dispensed with one of the two Thibault brothers by giving him a death that accomplishes nothing, that has no meaning. Jacques was never a good fit for his world; he seemed to know this, and for that reason willed his own death. But the redemption he sought to achieve in dying is completely denied him. Like the war itself, it is ghastly and without purpose.

(The cover shown above reproduces an image from the 2003 French television adaptation of the novel, featuring Malik Zidi as Jacques.)